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Of course we take it for granted.

It was the final days of World War II. Victory in Europe was achieved, but war still raged in the Pacific. Vannevar Bush looked back at the frantic scientific activity during wartime and tried to make sense of what should be the next frontier in managing and distributing knowledge.

The philosopher Ted Nelson read Bush’s writings and had utopian dreams of Xanadu, an endless information space. A fabric woven with a new thread he called hypermedia.

The engineer Douglas Engelbart also read Bush’s writings (while serving the Navy in the Philippines as a radar technician) and thought of tools that would augment the human intellect. And he created things like the computer mouse and what’s considered the precursor to the the graphical user interface. He also showed how collaboration and communication over computer networks could work and blew everybody’s mind.

Douglas Engelbart, a member of the holy trinity of the web together with Bush and Nelson, died this Tuesday, July 2nd, at 88 years of age.

Today, when our brightest engineering minds are solving the critical challenge of serving more relevant ads by amassing and crunching ridiculous amounts of personal data, let’s think back on a time when we thought, honestly, without a trace of irony, that technology could “augment the human intellect”.

R.I.P. Douglas Engelbart. They don’t make them like that anymore.

Update: The Hut Where the Internet Began – this article (at The Atlantic, where else) tells the story about how Vannevar Bush’s article made its way from the pages the magazine all the way to a hut in the Philippines.

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